October 29, 2020
Diverse forests amid an array of wetlands, the Chinchaga represents a haven of Boreal Highlands in northwestern Alberta.
Chinchaga’s diverse forest and wetlands offer important habitat for many boreal forest species including grizzly bears, woodland caribou and a variety of songbirds. PHOTO ©
AWA’s Chinchaga Area of Concern represents the largest region of Upper and Lower Boreal Highlands in northern Alberta which exhibit a tremendous amount of biodiversity. Limited protection from a multitude of inappropriate land-uses such as extensive industrialization and motorized recreation has rendered a significant portion of Chinchaga’s pristine landscapes degraded and fragmented.
Chinchaga is located in the Boreal Forest Natural Region of northwest Alberta, directly west of the town of Manning. Chinchaga’s landscapes support the full range of the Chinchaga Woodland caribou herd, in addition to many other boreal wildlife species. Woodland caribou have been designated as threatened provincially and nationally, but proliferating surface disturbances throughout Chinchaga has diminished the quality and quantity caribou habitat further contributing to the decline of Alberta’s caribou populations.
The majority of Chinchaga is unprotected public lands, and after decades of prioritizing industrial ventures, Chinchaga requires a strong science-based management framework that emphasizes the protection of remaining intact ecosystems, and mitigates existing damage through remediation by government and industry. The Chinchaga Wildland Provincial Park is the sole protected area within AWA’s Chinchaga Area of Concern.
Most of AWA’s Chinchaga Area of Concern is currently managed under a multiple use designation for various land use activities. Once completed, Chinchaga will be managed under two of Alberta’s regional plans: the southern half of AWA’s Chinchaga Area of Concern will be managed under Alberta’s Upper Peace Land-use Framework, while the northern portion will be managed under the Lower Peace Land-use Framework. Currently, neither of those regional plans have been initiated.
The Chinchaga Wildland Provincial Park is managed under the Provincial Parks Act, with intentions to: “preserve natural heritage of provincial significance or higher, while supporting outdoor recreation, heritage tourism, and natural heritage appreciation activities that depend upon and are compatible with environmental protection” (Alberta Parks 2001).
Chinchaga is situated within the Green Zone of Alberta (forested portion), where public land is managed for recreation, natural resources, and ecological significance and services. This area is generally devoid of public settlements, and entertains government granted disposition for a variety of industrial activities. Agricultural development is generally excluded from the Green Area with the exception of grazing leases. Management and administration of public lands within Alberta is largely overseen by provincial regulatory bodies such as the Alberta Energy Regulator, Alberta Environment and Parks, and Alberta agriculture and forestry. Public land dispositions are generally regulated under legislation that includes but is not limited to the Public Lands Act, Public Lands Administration Regulation Recreational Access Regulations, and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (Alberta 2014).
AWA believes that in order to restore the pristine condition of Chinchaga’s wilderness as a vital climate refugia for boreal forest wildlife, we must:
AWA’s Chinchaga Area of Concern is approximately 13,969 km2 in size, and is situated in northwest Alberta. Directly north of the Peace River, the Chinchaga wilderness is located west of the town of Manning, and south of Rainbow Lake, This wilderness can be accessed from Highway 35 and Township Road 940.
Chinchaga is located within the Peace/Slave River Basin of Alberta, with the Chinchaga River being the largest watercourse within AWA’s Area of Concern. The Chinchaga River originates from the Chinchaga lakes which are a series of small peat wetland lakes located in north-eastern British Columbia, and travels across the provincial border, and northeast through Alberta. The Chinchaga river also serves as the major tributary of the Hay River. Other notable water bodies within the area include Clear River, and the Notikewin River.
Chinchaga falls within the Interior Plains physiographic region of Canada which was formed approximately 1.9 billons years ago when cratons, old, stable blocks of the earth’s crust, collided and welded together.. Most of the bedrock within Chinchaga belong the Cretaceous age (136 –65 million years ago), and are composed of shales and siltstones. A significant portion of Chinchaga was covered with an ice sheet, with meltwaters ultimately being responsible for the formation of nearby lakes and rivers.
There are multiple areas within Chinchaga that denotes its provincial significance. Chinchaga’s forests, peatlands, and watercourses provide vital habitat for resident, migratory and at risk species. Currently, there is only one area within the Chinchaga wilderness that has legislative protection:
Chinchaga Wildland Park
Chinchaga is situated within the Boreal Forest Natural region of Alberta. The northern and central portions of Chinchaga consist of the Lower Boreal Highlands Subregion which contours smaller areas of Upper Boreal Highlands towards the east. A small segment of Chinchaga’s wilderness in the northeast is Central Mixedwood.
Lower Boreal Highlands: most stands within this area are dominated by jack pine, lodgepole pine or hybrids of the two. Aspen, balsam popular, black and white spruce trees are common on forested slopes, which include understory shrub species such as prickly rose, green alder, and low-brush cranberry. Forest peatlands and shrub marshes are also common in this region. The herbaceous communities include species such as tall lungwort, fireweed, sedges, bunchberry, and marsh reedgrass.
Upper Boreal Highlands: Conifer forests of lodgepole pine, and lodge pole-jackpine hybrids dominate most stands, with an understory generally consisting of bog cranberry, dewberry, fireweed and green alder. The main types of wetlands found in this Subregion are treed or shrubby bogs and fens.
Central Mixedwood: This region is characterized by a mixed of deciduous tree stands containing mostly aspen and aspen/white spruce forests. In addition, this area also has extensive wetland features such as fens and bogs which are dominated by jackpine and black spruce trees. Canadian buffaloberry, low brush cranberry, and prickly rose are common to the understory, with a mix of wild sarsaparilla, hairy wild rye, and tall lungwort being found in the herb communities.
Chinchaga’s boreal forests and wetlands offer habitat to a diverse number of species within Alberta such as wolves, wolverines, fishers, lynx, ungulates, and many neotropical migratory birds. The watersheds that extend across the Chinchaga are populated with Arctic Grayling, Burbot, Northern Pike, and Walleye.
Chinchaga’s wilderness provides critical habitat for important at risk species within Alberta such as woodland caribou. The Chinchaga caribou herd is considered threatened within Alberta, with the entirety of their range existing within the Chinchaga wilderness. The Chinchaga caribou herd, which is the boreal ecotype of woodland caribou, depends on intact old growth forests and peatlands of Chinchaga for survival. Unfortunately, the herd’s population size has been declining since monitoring began in 2002 due to excessive surface disturbance by industries which ultimately lead tohigher predation rates. The preservation of intact forest and peatland habitats within Chinchaga is critical to the success of conserving connected caribou populations in that region.
Conservation initiatives for caribou will also have significant effects for preserving the high biodiversity residing within the old growth forests of Chinchaga. Caribou are considered an ‘umbrella species’ for other wildlife which also rely on intact older growth boreal forests and peat wetlands. Many other species will likely benefit if Chinchaga forests are restored and managed to support self-sustaining caribou populations.
The peatlands of Chinchaga also support the breeding grounds for Trumpeter Swans, which are a species of special concern within Alberta. In addition, a significant portion of Chinchaga’s landscape is designated as Recovery and Support Zones for the grizzly bear management in Alberta. These areas are identified as core and support habitats, to be managed with the intent sustain and promote the growth of threatened grizzly bear populations.
Recreation throughout the Chinchaga wilderness includes observing fauna and flora, hiking, canoeing, fishing, camping, and motorized recreation.
Chinchaga landscapes have been subjected to significant amount of industrial activities such as oil and gas exploration and development and industrial scale clearcut logging. These industrial endeavors have resulted in the landscapes becoming highly fragmented and degraded. Many species potentially face population declines because of the extensive industrial developments on Chinchaga’s wilderness and their unmanaged cumulative effects. Critical habitat for Woodland caribou, grizzly bears and trumpeter swans will continue to disappear without increased protection and an ecosystem-based ethic approach for managing Chinchaga’s landscapes.
Regrettably, Chinchaga’s Woodland caribou are experiencing an inordinate rate of habitat loss. The Alberta government estimated in 2017 that 97% of the Chinchaga caribou range is within 500 meters of human disturbance, and is therefore considered ‘disturbed’ habitat, according to best available scientific evidence gathered for the federal boreal caribou recovery strategy. With only 12% of disturbances being attributed to wildlifes, most of the surface disturbance within Chinchaga is attributed to industrial activities and infrastructure such as resource roads, well pad, pipelines and cutblocks, in addition to legacy seismic lines that have not been reclaimed. .
Chinchaga’s boreal ecotype caribou population is similar to other herds across Alberta in that they select for black spruce, fir and pine habitat, but a recent report done by the Government of Alberta on caribou biophysical habitat clearly demonstrates that the Chinchaga caribou herd “use white spruce stands disproportionately more than available” (Government of Alberta 2018). The on-going logging of lucrative white spruce stands within Chinchaga has serious implications for the availability of suitable habitat within the herd’s range, which could ultimately affect survivability and the recovery of the species within Alberta.
Main threats from industrial activities to Chinchaga’s landscapes and wildlife populations include:
• increased access via roads, seismic lines, pipelines and other corridors,
• fragmentation of habitat from roads and cuts,
• increased predation,
• road kills,
• noise and general disturbance,
• habitat degradation, and
• habitat avoidance.
Chinchaga’s wild spaces need better stewardship, and AWA believes solutions are within reach to pursue economic development that respects sensitive wildlife. Implementing strict limits on total surface disturbances and a mandatory multi-sector infrastructure use program are required in order to preserve Chinchaga from further deterioration. Employment opportunities exist through the reclamation of seismic lines and/or abandoned wells while simultaneously renewing the capacity of the landscapes to support wildlife (Alberta government 2017) as well as to store significant quantities of water and carbon.
In addition to commercial operations, unregulated high impact recreation such as OHVs and snowmobiles further degrades Chinchaga’s landscapes. Many linear disturbances such as industry roads and seismic lines are used by off road recreationists to access wilderness areas, and the repetitive use of these linear features has negative impacts on surrounding ecosystems. Off road vehicle use on trails and unpaved roads prevents forest re-vegetation, destroys soil structure, and increases the quantity of sediment in forested watersheds (Welsh 2008). The continuous compaction and erosion of soils lowers the quality of habitat in surrounding terrestrial and aquatic communities, which is a serious issue for the viability of Chinchaga’s wildlife. AWA believes high impact recreation should be better regulated to protect Chinchaga’s rivers, wetlands, and forests.. Designated PLUZs for off road vehicle use and staging is a recommended management strategy for helping to control and mitigate the effects of OHVs.
The Government of Alberta established the Chinchaga caribou sub-regional task force in 2021 and AWA was selected, and agreed, to participate on this task force. It was announced in May 2022, that the Chinchaga Caribou Sub-Regional Task Force would begin meeting towards the end of June 2022.
Disappointed with the lack of concrete action, AWA remains engaged and is working to see better protection as well as caribou range planning implemented with urgency. The Government of Alberta establishes the Chinchaga caribou sub–regional task force and AWA is selected, and agrees, to participate on this task force.
In October, AWA and two ENGO partners commission the Bistcho-Yates economic study, which points out optimal approaches to recover caribou and support local economic activity, with the findings also applying to Chinchaga. Although there has been a lack of concrete action on behalf of the provincial government, AWA remains engaged and continues to work to see better habitat protection as well as caribou range planning implemented with urgency.
On April 30, the Canadian government releases the first report under section 63 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA), updating the public on at-risk species protection as required by that law. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) found that, outside of some protected areas, provinces and territories have largely failed to protect boreal caribou critical habitat.
March 19, Alberta’s Environment Minister requests federal funding and more time to complete range plans. The Minister also states that Alberta is “suspending” consideration of potential Northwest protected areas, including protection for the Chinchaga P8 Forest Management Unit (FMU), until socio-economic impacts can be determined. These are the same areas that the government’s appointed consultant identified in a May 2016 report as having minimal negative economic impacts.
March 15, a letter to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Minister from six environmental groups, including AWA, seeks assurance that federal-provincial conservation agreements provided for in section 11 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) will not be misused to mask provincial inaction.
February 27, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada states in a letter to Ecojustice, on behalf of a client group including AWA, that she is assessing whether critical habitat of boreal caribou is effectively protected by the laws of Alberta, She adds that, should she determine that any portion of critical habitat is unprotected, she will publish a report in April 2018 on steps being taken to protect that critical habitat, and will recommend that the federal Cabinet (Governor in Council) make a safety net order. This would extend protections provided under the Species At Risk Act to caribou habitat on provincial lands.
On December 19, the Alberta government’s draft provincial Woodland caribou range plan is released for public comment. The draft carries forward the idea from the 2016 Denhoff report that the 3500 km2 Forest Management Unit P8 in Chinchaga be designated as a sizeable new conservation area. However, the draft plan overall allows unspecified new industrial disturbance in caribou critical habitat outside designated conservation areas, and marks further delays in range-specific plans and actions. While advancing some positive principles, the government continues to delay necessary actions to achieve caribou home ranges of at least 65% undisturbed habitat, the absolute minimum required for caribou to sustain themselves.
On November 28, AWA writes all Alberta MLAs noting the dire situation of caribou and requesting their support to recover this iconic species. Supporters of Alberta’s endangered caribou delivers hundreds of postcards to the steps of the Alberta Legislature, asking Premier Notley to protect the habitat that these iconic wildlife need. The “Quarters for Caribou” event, organized by Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA), comes after Alberta misses its 5-year deadline for producing caribou range plans in October 2017.
On October 31, The federal government reports that the quality of caribou habitat continues to decline across Canada. In a separate release, the David Suzuki Foundation, Ontario Nature and Alberta Wilderness Association identify critical habitat destruction “hot spots” in the Chinchaga, and in ranges of threatened caribou in Ontario and Quebec. This destruction occurred in the five years since the federal recovery strategy was released. The groups call on the three provincial governments to convene Indigenous and stakeholder groups to develop range plans that protect critical caribou habitat. No province or territory has fully met the timeline established in the federal recovery strategy for the development of range plans, due on October 5, 2017.
On January 12, AWA’s comments on Alberta’s draft provincial woodland caribou range plan strongly support proposed conservation areas that the Alberta government promised in June 2016, including the 3500 km2 Forest Management Unit P8 in Chinchaga. However, AWA is concerned that overall, thedraft plan does more to increase the risk of caribou extinction for the foreseeable future – by allowing more critical habitat in caribou home ranges to be destroyed – than it does to work towards recovering thriving caribou populations.
On December 17, Alberta government issues a request for proposals to build and manage a fenced compound in west central Alberta’s Little Smoky caribou range for captive females and calves, in hopes to recover and increase resident caribou population. AWA urges Alberta government to prioritize the restriction of new surface disturbances in caribou range instead.
On November 23, Alberta’s department of Energy extends its “use it or lose it” deadlines for drilling requirements for industry operators within every Alberta caribou range until March 2019. AWA welcomes this step to support caribou recovery, and requests that stringent limits on new surface disturbance in caribou ranges also be adopted soon.
On September 30, Alberta Energy announces an interim restriction has been placed on the sale of mineral rights within all caribou ranges in Alberta. The restriction applies to petroleum and natural gas, oil sands, coal and metallic and industrial mineral rights. AWA is pleased to learn of this action and expresses hope that it reflects the petroleum industry’s commitment to restoring Alberta’s woodland caribou populations.
On June 6, the Alberta government makes a significant, high profile commitment to Alberta’s threatened population of woodland caribou. It declares that its woodland caribou recovery actions would include “providing permanent protection to an additional 1.8 million hectares of caribou range in the Chinchaga, Bischto, Yates and Caribou Mountains ranges.”
This commitment accepts the recommendations of government-appointed mediator Eric Denhoff to “substantially expand the Chinchaga Wildland Provincial Park by 347,600 hectares, adding all of forest management unit P8… effectively quintupling the existing park size and in a single stroke, forever preserving almost 25% of the Chinchaga caribou range… It does not require displacement of any existing forestry tenure and existing oil and natural gas leases can be grandfathered in.”
New protected areas are a key component in the government’s June 2016 Alberta’s Caribou Action Plan. That plan also declares: “We are committed to achieving self sustaining caribou populations. We cannot and will not abandon them to history.”
On August 4, AWA reports that no new energy rights within Alberta caribou ranges are scheduled for future sales. This deferral of new tenure sales in caribou ranges is later formalized in a September 2016 directive.
April 28, AWA reports that the Alberta government has issued new oil and gas tenures on 718,000 hectares (7190 km2) of endangered mountain and boreal woodland caribou habitat since the federal boreal caribou recovery strategy was finalized in October 2012, and Alberta plans another major auction of new oil and gas leases on 35,600 hectares (356 km2) in caribou habitat, all without rules to reduce surface disturbance below current excessive levels. In the Chinchaga range alone, 1000 km2 of oil and gas have been auctioned since the federal recovery strategy, and a further 3 km2 are about to be auctioned. AWA notes that energy resources can be extracted with a greatly reduced footprint compatible with caribou, and asks all Alberta’s political party leaders to commit to defer energy lease sales in endangered caribou ranges until effective rules to protect the herds are in place.
On November 3, ten years after Alberta’s 2004-2014 woodland caribou recovery plan began, habitat disturbance keeps increasing far past limits caribou can tolerate, and populations have significantly declined. Data compiled by Alberta Wilderness Association reveals that an area 2/3 the size of Nova Scotia (over 33,000 km2) has been auctioned for new oil and gas leases in ranges across Alberta since the plan started, with no meaningful surface disturbance limits. This includes 9700 km2 in the Chinchaga range. Similarly, oil sands leases cover over 80% of northeast Alberta caribou ranges with no meaningful surface disturbance limits. AWA calls on the Alberta government to adopt rules that steadily reduce industry’s net footprint in its first two caribou range plans expected under the 2012 federal recovery strategy.
On March 14, Alberta has auctioned 5400 km2 of new oil and gas leases/licenses allowing surface disturbance within its threatened woodland caribou ranges since October 2012, the date when the federal caribou recovery strategy mandated provinces to start developing range-specific plans to protect and restore caribou habitat. This includes 970 km2 in Chinchaga caribou range. Alberta has also announced that by April 30, 2014 it plans to sell a further 30 km2 of leases/licenses in five caribou ranges, of which 5 km2 is in Chinchaga. AWA calls on the Alberta government to stop undermining caribou survival chances and halt new leasing in its caribou ranges.
On March 20, the Alberta government continues to sellnew petroleum and natural gas tenures in threatened caribou ranges, including Chinchaga, despite already unacceptably high industrial disturbance of caribou habitat in those areas. AWA calls on the Alberta government to cease new surface leasing and new disturbance permits in Alberta caribou ranges and to make good on its promises to maintain and restore caribou habitat.
In October, Government of Canada releases the final boreal woodland caribou federal recovery strategy, five years past the deadline under the federal Species at Risk Act. The strategy clearly gives the most urgency to landscape level planning and to habitat protection and restoration; it directs provinces to develop range plans to outline how they will manage range habitat to achieve and maintain at least a 65% undisturbed habitat target, and adequate biophysical habitat, for caribou populations in each range to stabilize and recover. AWA calls for swift range plan development by Alberta and on-the-ground actions to meet the targets.
In October, Conservationists, including AWA, call for a moratorium on further development in Chinchaga until permanent protection is established.
In April, AWA and partnering ENGOs make a submission to the Chinchaga Management Committee which include suggestions to enlarge the protected area and prohibit an increase in the use of OHVs.
The Alberta government decides to prohibit logging in a 350,000-hectare area, the P8 forest management unit, north of the Chinchaga Wildland Provincial Park. AWA believes that reducing forestry is a great first step in protecting the Chinchaga area. Oil and gas development is still permitted.
In June, in response to a letter from AWA, the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development states that the Alberta Government has “no plans to re-open discussion” about enlarging the Chinchaga Special Place. He notes that the Special Places program fully achieved it target with regards to the protection of the Central Mixedwood natural sub-region, establishing a total of 81 new and 13 expanded sites, and brought Alberta’s total protected land base to 12.5%, which he called “…a significant environmental achievement for all Albertans.” In reply to the Minister’s response, AWA points out that Chinchaga lies in the Foothills Region rather than the Central Mixedwood subregion of the Boreal Region, with only 2% of the Foothills region being protected. Additionally, AWA notes that 2/3 of the 12.5% of protected land in Alberta is federally protected. A meager 4% of provincially protected area represents “a slightly less ‘significant achievement for all Albertans.’”
In March, the Biophysical Inventory of Chinchaga Wildland Park is released.
In July, in a press release from AWA, CPAWS and Wildcanada.net, the conservation groups speak out against the Alberta Government’s private negotiations with Grande Alberta Paper (GAP) pulp and paper mill, who wishes to renegotiate their deal with the government for 10,000 square kilometers in the Chinchaga area. In 1996, the Environment Minister had promised to give Albertans full access to information regarding the GAP project.
In February, Murphy Oil Company Ltd. applies to the National Energy Board to build a 17km 12-inch pipeline just outside of the new Chinchaga Wildland Park, through the middle of the Chinchaga candidate area and the Chinchaga caribou range.
In July, AWA announces that at least one petroleum company has requested that the petroleum rights in Milk River and Chinchaga be put up for sale. Although the Environment Minister dismisses the announcement and claims that AWA is mistaken, AWA produces the leaked government document, dated May 23, 2000, which includes Milk River and Chinchaga on the list of land parcels to be sold in August and September. The AWA claims victory when the two parcels of land are eventually removed from the sale list. AWA calls for transparency and openness so that there is no need to rely on leaked documents.
In December, an 800km2 tract of land in Chinchaga is designated as a protected area – the Chinchaga Wildland Park – under the Special Places 2000 program. Unfortunately, due to the small size, ongoing industrial use and the lack of representative forests, the new protected area is a disappointment to conservationists. This same month, the provincial government authorizes logging by Daishowa-Marubeni and Manning Diversified Forest Products in another part of Chinchaga.
In October, WWF urges the province of Alberta to seriously consider the Boreal Forest recommendations made by the Senate Committee.
AWA holds a rally at Edmonton’s Winston Churchill Square demanding that the provincial government stop industrial development and forestry activity in the Chinchaga.
In June, the Senate Committee Report states Boreal Forest at risk of degradation and loss from industrial activities, and includes 35 recommendations for forest management.
In March, AWA takes part in a consumer awareness campaign in opposition to Grande Alberta Paper’s logging of the Chinchaga area.
In February, logging company Daishowa-Marubeni announces that if Chinchaga becomes a Special Place, it wants to trade its logging quota for timber in another unprotected location.
In September, the Alberta Land and Forest Division adds 450 square miles of forests to the timber license of Manning Diversified Forest Products Ltd. This addition of land includes land set aside by a provincial committee as the Chinchaga Special Place.
A severe outbreak of Spruce Budworm occurs in Chinchaga.
Spruce Budworm is first recorded in Chinchaga.
A wildfire burns 10,000 square kilometers of the Chinchaga area.